One theory goes that cultural interest in technologic UFOs* derived from the same paranormal sensibilities as fairies and elves of previous centuries; and as such when one waxed in interest (presumably due to WWII and the nascent space-race) the other waned.

So did popular cultural interest in fairies overlap the UFO phase or immediately precede it?

* I'm narrowing the definition from all conceivable Unidentified Flying or Hovering Objects to the classical variety of technological UFOs commonly associated with aliens or men-in-black, as manifested especially after the rise of rocketry and space travel in the popular consciousness; eventually dissipating with the rise of smartphones, hobbyist drones and played out memes.

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    Faeries pretty much are UFOs.
    – David H
    Oct 10 '14 at 5:36
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    I don't know if this has been studied, but it seems to me looking back on it that the "UFO phase" seemed to wax and wane almost precisely with Cold War tensions.
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 10 '14 at 11:50
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    Could you add a link and some references to that "one theory" that talks about cultural interest in fairies vs. UFOs? There're a lot of loosely defined terms here (like what exactly constitutes "cultural interest") which require a bit more focus for a good answer. Oct 10 '14 at 12:26
  • @AvnerShahar-Kashtan Unfortunately the only source I recall mentioning how curious the timing of shift from fairies to UFOs was, was in a podcast I listened to years ago. In practice the crux of the question is: Did popular interest in fairies precede UFOs or overlap them? Oct 10 '14 at 17:29
  • @DavidH Updated the question definition. Cheers Oct 11 '14 at 1:16

A factor to consider in this aspect is how widespread the Victorian Spiritualism fad was, and just how long it lasted.

The time I associate specifically with the phrase "Fairy Craze" I immediately associated it with the early 1900's when several infamous hoaxes and scams were still able to take advantage of the strong spiritualism interests. Modern technology assisted the ease that these could spread, taking the "traveling show" on the rails to massive audiences, and providing new forms of fake evidence. (Based on your account picture you'll probably find this interesting: http://publicdomainreview.org/2013/06/12/sir-arthur-and-the-fairies/ Poor old chap...)

Now let's consider the "modern" UFO craze, let's arbitrarily say that the early signs of it are Jules Verne's works, and that it's fully in place by the time H. G. Wells writes War of the Worlds. This marks the UFO craze as alive and well in the 1890's.

So yes, the crazes overlap (in very public ways) by quite a chunk of time. Spiritualism may have taken a backseat in the more cynical world following WW2, but we could look at current cultural trends and find evidence that they still are overlapping. Starting in the 70's there has been a steady business to be done by fuzing the crazes and reinterpreting ancient myth and mystery as alien interactions.

  • Hmm. So did the believers themselves shift in their outlook towards combining the two topics, or were they separate temporally-overlapping sub-cultures with clear self-defined identities? Oct 18 '14 at 0:48
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    That's a good question. The spiritualist stereotype is kind of unexpected by modern standards. I tend to picture people who were active their community and in protestant faiths; and predominantly female. My family is of Pennsylvania Dutch heritage; and my father remembers being visited by the "Powwow Man" in the 40's. So a group that now represents a chunk of conservative evangelical America, still had an active "witch doctor" after WW2. That's not the sort of community we tend to associate with UFO obsessions. Oct 18 '14 at 1:39
  • And of course, Ghosts were always a popular 'craze'...
    – Zibbobz
    Oct 21 '14 at 17:11

A look at the list of UFO sightings from Wikipedia shows the "UFO craze" beginning in 1947. Of course there were previous sightings of "unidentified flying object"; a duck is an UFO if whoever sees it does not recognize it as a duck. But beginning in 1947, the number of reported sightings just jumped. The notion of sentient extra-terrestrial life forms, possibly hostile to mankind, was well established and mainstream at the end of the 19th century; apart from H. G. Wells' book, as @H.R.Rambler indicates, one may cite Lowell's Martian canals. The 1938 panic triggered by Orson Welles shows that by 1938 the public at large was ready to believe in aliens. Yet there can be a difference between a fertile situation, and an actual "craze".

Personally I would define the UFO craze to begin in 1947, and to end around 1990; basically when movies began to have sufficiently convincing special effects that all reported photographs of flying saucers could instinctively be thought of as "potentially phony" by spectators. The X-Files television series demonstrates, in my opinion, that the craze was ended: instead of people claiming "I want to believe", they made a fictional show about a hero who "wants to believe", thereby precipitating the whole thing into the category of "funny irrelevance".

Among the same lines, the "fairy craze" ended much before the "UFO craze" began. In the 1930s, J.R.R. Tolkien could use the fairy worlds and inhabitants for fiction, even children's books (as The Hobbit was supposed to be in 1937).

Of course all of this is highly debatable. What constitutes a "craze" is in need of a precise definition. However, from the elements above, I'd say that there is a hole between the time people ceased to believe in fairies, and the time they began to earnestly believe in aliens. This of course opens the question of what were they believing in, between the two World Wars ? Spiritualism is a candidate -- belief in communications with the dead, but dead humans, not deceased elves or martians. As I read in the relevant Wikipedia page:

In February 1921 Thomas Lynn Bradford committed suicide in an experiment designed to ascertain the existence of an afterlife. No further communications were received from him after this date.

That is what I call scientific dedication. And a clue that in 1921 some people were still quite crazy about spiritualism.

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